I have several friends who have recently been through diversity training at their companies. This is not uncommon these days. Many corporations are scrambling to keep up with the ethos of the moment, desperate to demonstrate the appropriate levels of commitment to equality and inclusion, terrified that they might be held liable for a stray comment or inappropriate action by one of their employees in the domains of sexuality, race, or gender. Diversity training is the way to cover their backsides. “Oh, and so said or did bad thing x? Well, we did what we could. They received diversity training. We can’t really help it if it didn’t take.”
In my experience, people tend not to particularly enjoy diversity day. Many feel that this is little more than a corporate hoop to jump through, often of a fairly reactive variety. Someone in the office has said or done something bad, therefore we all have to sit through a paternalistic lecture today. There is often laughably contrived role playing involved. It is clear to everyone what the desired outcome must be. People feel talked down to rather than actually engaged. There doesn’t tend to be a great deal of, shall we say, moral movement that results. Everyone says their lines, perhaps grumbles a little in hushed tones, and moves on.
Let’s leave aside for a moment the righteousness of the cause of championing diversity. Even if we can agree that creating space for and honouring difference is an important goal for a given society, the way we’re often doing it simply doesn’t seem to work very well. More often than not, exercises like Diversity Day leave people feeling a combination of confused, resigned, embittered, and fatigued. Many people of good will and reasonable moral sensitivity feel brow-beaten into declaring themselves to be racists or sexists or ____phobes of whatever description. Any questioning of these designations is taken as evidence that they are obviously true. Any misgivings about the methods we use to champion diversity is interpreted in the same way. There is often little room for honest questions, nuance, or complexity.
This morning, my attention was directed to a rather blistering article written by the famous Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s a wide-ranging piece that reflects on fairly personal experiences with some young writers, but weaving its way throughout is this theme of somehow finding yourself on the wrong side of the moral zealots when it comes to issue x pertaining to diversity. The whole piece is worth reading, in my view, and particularly part three. I suspect there are few among us who wouldn’t recognize some of the trends Adichie excoriates in her closing words:
The assumption of good faith is dead. What matters is not goodness but the appearance of goodness. We are no longer human beings. We are now angels jostling to out-angel one another. God help us. It is obscene.
Whew. That is some indictment of the state of our moral moment and all the social and psychological dynamics that surround it.
I feel like I say this almost every week on this blog or in my sermons or in private conversations or even in the confines of my own skull, but our cultural moment is in such desperate need of a more robust and realistic and, dare I say, Christian anthropology than what is on offer in the punitive, puritanical, and self-congratulatory world of our moral discourse these days. We need to be able to acknowledge that we are all both saint and sinner at the same time. We need to recover some tools that allow us to admit that we will all say and do thing that transgress someone’s standards of purity at some point in our lives (and that said standards could themselves occasionally stand a bit of questioning). We need a conceptual framework that has provisions for our irreducibly human need for grace and forgiveness and redemption. And we have to have room to say that the human journey is one in which there is room for growth and progress (and regress) along the way.
None of this precludes taking a clear stand against violent and hateful behaviour. But it is this fuzzier, more morally ambiguous world of policing tweets and monitoring every workplace comment and trawling the internet for evidence of historical sins and forever “calling out” transgressions that many of us live and move. This is a world in which our morality far too easily takes on the form of a performative ritual. We carefully position ourselves on the right side of the right issues in the right contexts in a moral context where the ground itself seems unstable and liable to shift at any moment. We are constantly scanning the horizon, trying to detect which way the winds will blow, forever poised to adjust as needed. What matters most, always, is how we are perceived.
I really do believe, with Adichie, that we need to resuscitate something like an assumption of good faith in this frenzied and confused moral moment. We are human beings, after all, not angels. And our attempts to out-angel each other are turning demonic. The appearance of goodness is proving a very poor substitute for the real thing.